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Interview: Eric Church on country fakers, going for big success and wimpy rock music

Eric ChurchEric Church speaks his mind. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson/FTWP)

Country upstart Eric Church's biggest hit to date and first to crack the country radio top 10 is "Love Your Love the Most." It's a slightly twangy, mid-tempo number in which he reels off a list of things he likes ("I love my NASCAR race/Any song sung by George Strait"), the kind of song that's become a staple on country radio. But Church's signature number may be "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," a hard-rocking screed against the latest crop of country pretenders. "You say you're the real deal / But you play what nobody feels / You sing about Johnny Cash / The Man in Black would've whipped your [expletive]," he sings.

The 32-year-old North Carolina native prefers to do things the old-fashioned way - grinding it out on the road. He'll spend most of the next four months criss-crossing the country, starting out in clubs and theaters (including Baltimore's Rams Head Live! on Tuesday and 9:30 club Feb. 16) and ending with amphitheaters as part of the Country Throwdown tour with the likes of Montgomery Gentry, Jamey Johnson and Little Big Town. And even though he's been critical of some of the genre's newest stars, he's still a country boy at heart. "Country music, the thing I love about it, more than any other music, it does represent real life and it represents middle American better than any format," he says.

"Lotta Boot Left to Fill" has a strong message to it, critical of some of your peers. Did it not sit well with some people?

I actually gave it to (Capitol Records president) Mike Dungan and he played it for the vice presidents. He called me afterward and said, "Well I played 'Lotta Boot.' Eric, I'll be honest with you. A lot of people were pretty nervous when they heard it." And I started laughing because that means it's perfect. (Laughs.) So he said, "You're sure?" And I said, "Yeah, absolutely." Every other artist in town would be scared to put that out and I'm not. And that's the reason it needs to get out there. It makes you a little uncomfortable.

I remember "Two Pink Lines" made people nervous, too. A little uncomfortable. I had the same reasoning. That doesn't make it bad music. It means you're actually saying something that hits close to home. I like stuff like that.

I love "Lotta Boot." I get some flack - "You should be nicer and more accepting." It's not that. I have a lot of respect for this industry. I have a lot of respect for the record making process, the guys who built this industry. And the problem that I have is when people come along who get their fame another way. And they use their moment when they make their country record to extend their fame. They don't make a great record. They don't honor the traditions of country. Or they don't get out there and sweat it out and slog it out, like everybody else does. And that's a pet peeve of mine. That irks me. And that's part of what the song is about.

George Jones spoke out a few months ago and specifically named Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift as a pair of people whose music was not country music. I guess if anyone can speak out, it would be him.

He can. I didn't love that. Again, it's not what you call country. I think by a lot of people's standards the music we make and the show that we do is much more rock-and-roll. It's just - make good music. That's all I've ever asked. I don't care what you do or where you come from. If you come in and make a great record and work hard and treat the format with respect, I'm fine with you. If you don't, I got problems.

(Plenty more after the jump - it's snowing, you have time to read it all.)

You mention Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash in "Lotta Boot" but you'd probably be the first to admit that your records don't exactly sound like what those two did.

The funniest thing to me is that I talk about people namechecking artists like Johnny Cash and it's a little tongue-in-cheek because I namecheck Waylon. So there's a little bit of humor in that song, too, where I try to show that I'm doing the same thing. It's much more tongue-in-cheek than people think.

You mention "Two Pink Lines" as another song that got people talking. Can you talk about that one a little?

It was real. I'll tell you what happened. When I wrote that song I had been writing for the first record and had been talking about writing songs about people's lives. And I happened to come home that night and I was having dinner and my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time. We were talking about somebody back in her home town got pregnant. And she was young, and we started talking about it and then I started relating to that when I was younger and I'd been there.

And it dawned on me that this stuff we're talking about as we sit there at this table is what a lot of people talk about at their table. And that's what the song should be about. It makes some people uncomfortable but I know a lot of other people, too, who really related to that song. That was the thing I was trying to do.

Country music, one thing I love about it, more than any other music, it does represent real life and it represents middle American better than any format. And I think that's what goes on day to day. I don't care if you're married, whether you're not married, how young or old you are. Somebody's been there at some point in time. And I think that's why that song had to be written.

As record sales keep going down, country is the one genre that continues to make new stars. Does that make you feel like you have to take advantage your opportunity while you can?

We've always toured hard and we've always worked hard. We've seen this thing building. The one thing we haven't been able to put together is consistent radio success. We had our first top 10 with "Love Your Love" and we've got a song that's doing well now, "Hell on the Heart." We've seen these shows grow just by touring, and just by being out there. So to add the radio we're seeing it grow double and triple as fast as it was.

And I think seeing that, it's just time for us - instead of just sitting here and saying we're going to take off until March and then tour, I think it's time for us to get out there and really get in front of people and really grow this thing. Because I think there are a couple points in your career where you make good decisions and do the right things, it really pays dividends. And I think we're at one of those points. We're at one of those crossroads. It's time to go and be one of the guys in the format. We certainly have the touring base for it. So it's time to get out there and see what we can do.

Do you find you have to make any concessions? It's tough to be an outlaw while also trying to sell records.

I think everybody probably makes some concessions when you're dealing with popular music and commercial music. I don't care what genre you're in. I think when you're trying to appeal to the masses ... there may be a point in time when I just go do an acoustic record with me and a guitar. And that may be my favorite record I've ever done. But I don't know that it will have hits on it.

So I think everybody makes concessions everywhere. With our records, I don't. What gets picked for the radio, I try to remove myself from that. But I try to make a record that has the best of both worlds on it. If you're an outlaw, [expletive] and vinegar guy, and you like that stuff that's pretty in your face, we got that. The thing that I like is that even the stuff that's been on the radio, the stuff that we've had hits with, it's still aggressive and still very much me. And I think that's the thing that I'm proud of. When we got our first top 10, I didn't change anything to get that top 10.

There are a lot of artists - I know them and I see them - who if they don't get a top 10 then they try this. And if they don't get it they try this. And if they don't get it they try this. And when they finally do get it the people have no idea where they're coming from because they've come from four different directions. And I think for us, and it could have not worked out this way, but we kept on doing the same thing and hoped that we were building enough fans out there that the situation would change. And the game changed a little bit.

But you must have known that "Love Your Love" was going to be the song that got chosen as a single, right?

I thought so. But there were also some parts of that song - it's got "damn" in it. It's got "hell" in it. (Laughs.) It's got beer, it's got Jack Daniels. So there are some people out there who were probably nervous about some of that.

Well you knew it wouldn't be "Smoke a Little Smoke," at least.

Well, I'm gearing towards that! There's my pick. I would love to live in a world, and I'm hoping if we get a couple up in that top 10 ... I think there's a lot of juice on that song. I think that's a magical song. Maybe it's just live. Maybe it's a live thing. We had to move that song into our encore about the middle of this last year because I couldn't recover from it if I put it in the middle of a set. We couldn't get the crowd ... they just lost their mind. And it was two or three songs before they started listening to us again. (Laughs.) They just wanted to go crazy after it. So finally we moved it to the encore and put "Love Your Love" after it.

So it's been a crazy song live and it's got a bit of its own movement. The No. 1 selling shirt right now says, "Drink a little drink, smoke a little smoke" and it's got two skeletons on the front drinking and smoking. So it's definitely got its own little group out there. There are a couple of songs on there that I'd love to get out. The other one is "Those I've Loved," it's one of my favorite songs I've ever done. I'd love a song that describes, as a songwriter, it describes the people I write songs about. I just love how introspective that is. If that one could get out there that would make me happy, too.

You said your show is as much rock as country. Do you listen to much rock music?

I listen to some. I go through phases. The new Metallica record came out a year ago, I dug that. It just depends, man. I thought the last Maroon 5 record was a great record. It's straight up pop, but some of the best pop out there. It's like every song was a damn hit. I get into some different things from time to time.

I was a little disappointed - we played Lollapalooza this year. I think we were the only country band on there. Somebody said to me, "What's it like to be a country band out here with all these hard rock and rock bands?" And I didn't mean it to sound the way it sounded but I was honest with them. I said, "To be honest with you, I thought we rocked a lot harder than most of these bands." And we went around and saw some of it. And I was a little disappointed. It was a little ... I don't know, maybe I'm just an old-school AC/DC rock-and-roll guy. (Laughs.) But it just wasn't quite what I expected. I thought we put it out there more with what we were doing.

Yeah, there's a lot of mellow stuff going on these days.

That's what I thought! Maybe I was at the wrong stage. I don't know, it was just very ... artsy. Folksy. Mellow. Or like, bad Queen.

By David Malitz  |  February 5, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Interview  | Tags: Eric Church  
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